Sunday, August 24, 2008

Pond: a poem from Camper Van Blues (due soon from Salt Publishing)

(for Yvonne)

Up to your thighs in our new garden pond —
or what will be a pond by half past five —
you seem less human, more amphibian.

To make inert black plastic come alive
with forms that creep, crawl, swim and reproduce,
you heave yourself around collapsing sides

with the ingenuity of an Odysseus.
Soil bouncing blindly off your spade like light,
you tack the liner down that’s working loose.

This muddy sluice is all we’ll have tonight.
The after-dinner speech is ‘Stocking Fish’.
Meanwhile, the garden’s a construction site.

It won’t be long before we come to wish
we’d never started this, both unprepared
to excavate so broad and deep a ditch.

You level up. The pond is nearly there,
one thing we can’t divide now if we part:
a permanence whose origins we share;
the leaky moon inside a sinking heart.

First published in Poetry Review

Apologies to those who may have read this poem before when I posted it up last September. I'm off on my annual writing retreat first thing in the morning and have much packing to do.

I shall post up a previously unseen poem on my return, promise!


The inside of my mind right now ...

Friday, August 22, 2008

On Friendship

Why does truth always sound more ironic than lies? Or is that just my jaded ear? Thus Oscar Wilde: 'True friends stab you in the front.'

Find other quotations by writers on the delicate art of friendship at the Arvon Foundation blog.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A fulcrum, a punctum, a narrative incongruity, a volta and a tonal shift

In response to recent POF forum discussions of risk in poetry and the higher echelons of poetic technique - amongst the more unlikely terms mentioned by Roddy Lumsden were "a fulcrum, a punctum, a narrative incongruity, a volta and a tonal shift" - I felt the urge to post up the following stab of Lorca as a first-strike response. I've quoted this particularly apposite passage before, but it's worth repeating.

There is also Ms. Baroque's blog for an alternative view of such discussions.

(By the way, looking up 'punctum', I discovered that it's the word used to describe a little prick or puncture hole.)

"The muse arouses the intellect, and brings colonnaded landscapes and a false taste of laurel. Very often intellect is poetry's enemy because it is too much given to imitation, because it lifts the poet to a throne of sharp edges and makes him oblivious of the fact that he may suddenly be devoured by ants or a great arsenic lobster may fall on his head."

---------- LORCA: 'Theory and Function of the Duende'

Well, exactly.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

On Warwick: poems from the Laureateship

I've just sent off the final draft of my manuscript to Nine Arches Press, who have very kindly taken me on as their debut publication later this year, bringing out a pamphlet of my Warwick Laureate poems to coincide with the Warwick Words Festival.

It's only a very short pamphlet, but quite varied in content. There's my long poem, 'On Warwick Castle', and various pieces of commissioned writing from bodies within Warwickshire, plus some required writing for the Laureateship. That last category includes a selection of poems that will be exhibited alongside the photos which inspired them (taken by Anand Chhabra) at the Festival Poetry & Photography Exhibition.

The whole pamphlet will be called, very simply, 'On Warwick'. Once I know what the cover will look like, I'll post it up here. Possibly with an extract.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Under the Radar: poetry magazine launch

I'll be reading tomorrow night at this very special event:


Tuesday, August 19th, 2008, from 7.30pm
Kozi Bar,
Market Place, Warwick

Celebrate the launch of our first issue of Under the Radar and the founding of
Nine Arches Press, with a heady brew of poets, wine and song.

Special guest poets:
Jane Holland - Warwick's very own poet laureate.
Simon Turner - Leamington-based new modernist poet.
Matt Nunn - Birmingham's finest poetic export.

Join us for the first ever Shindig! event in Warwickshire - a new kind of poetry event, a veritable feast of music and the spoken word.

Nine Arches Press

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Warwick Words: Poetry & Photography Exhibition

Warwick Words Festival Poetry & Photography Exhbition
Art & Wine Gallery, Jury Street

Free Entry
Opening times:
Thurs 2nd October 10am – 6pm
Fri 3rd & Sat 4th October 10am – 10pm
Sun 5th October 11am – 5pm

This summer, I've joined forces with Anand Chhabra, Artist-in-Residence at Spencer Yard, Leamington Spa, in a collaborative project of poetry and photography.

Anand has captured people and places around Warwickshire, not with hi-tech photographic equipment but with a £20 Holga camera, demonstrating how to take "artistic, street-style pictures inexpensively".

I'm in the process of writing a series of poems to accompany the photographs. The whole project is due to be exhibited at a Warwick art gallery over the Warwick Words Festival long weekend in October.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Always start with the second stanza, he said

At one time, one of the poetry books most likely to be found on - or sometimes under - my coffee table was Ian McMillan's marvellous Dad, the Donkey's on Fire. A highly recommended poetry collection, not least because much of it is side-splittingly hilarious. My husband and I still quote 'The Continuity Girl is Dead' to each other when spotting editing mistakes in films. And the short-short story about the commuter absentmindedly putting his unlidded takeaway coffee into his briefcase before boarding the train ... well, I used to cry with laughter on reading that, even after I'd read it so many times I could practically recite it from memory.

Sadly, I can't quote from it more fully, for fear of making mistakes, as I no longer own Dad, the Donkey's On Fire (so if anyone wants to buy it for me for Christmas, I'd be very grateful). A friend who shall remain nameless 'borrowed' my copy a few years ago, and never returned it.

But, in case you were wondering, there is an excellent reason why I've mentioned it here today. And that is Ian McMillan's very funny and insightful poem 'Stone, I presume', where he discusses always starting poems with the second stanza.

You see, I'm off on my annual writing retreat at the end of next week, armed with a partial manuscript of my novel and an assortment of useful books. And today, trying desperately to muddle through the chaos I left my novel in after last time, I remembered, in a sudden flash, Ian McMillan's incisive line: 'always start with the second stanza'.

And I threw away the first chapter. Just like that.

So now chapter two is the new chapter one, and everything else moves up. And the whole book is so much tighter now, I could almost kiss Ian McMillan. Except he wouldn't understand and would probably write a poem about it later in which I figured as some sort of mad bag-lady, attacking him in the street after a poetry reading and attempting to plant a wet one on his cheek.

So what's good for donkeys is good for poets. Or rather, what's good for poems is good for novels too. And if anyone has 'Stone, I presume' to hand, please do quote the relevant lines in the Comments box below.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Anecdotal Evidence: `Humor, Imagination, and Manners'

Thanks to Rob over on Surroundings for this one: Patrick Kurp, an American writer and blogger, discussing the concept of the humorous critic. Or rather, humour and the critic, which is perhaps not the same thing.

To illustrate his point, Krup quotes a 1931 New Yorker review by Dorothy Parker of Theodore Dreiser:

I am unable to feel that a writer can be complete without humor. And I don’t mean by that, and you know it perfectly well, the creation or the appreciation of things comic. I mean that the possession of a sense of humor entails the sense of selection, the civilized fear of going too far. A little humor leavens the lump, surely, but it does more than that. It keeps you, from your respect for the humor of others, from making a dull jackass of yourself.

Find Patrick Krup's blog here.

I decided some years ago that I wanted to write poetry criticism as well as poetry. Life, of course, caught up with me in the form of several children. Then poetry had its way too, even though I'd assumed by then that it had finished with me for good.

But things are beginning to open out for me again, and people everywhere seem to be discussing the role of the critic, and talking seriously about criticism again, after several decades of not really bothering much about it, as though criticism was poetry's embarrassing second cousin, the one who's never invited to those lavish family get-togethers at Christmas but might find a box of anonymous hand-me-downs on the doorstep every now and then.

Maybe 2009 will be a year of critical writing for me. If so, I have just the right project in mind. Where, fingers crossed, I shall not make 'a dull jackass' of myself. Assuming I can help it, that is.

Writing 'Fifth': the creative process

‘Fifth’, which was written over several months in 2004 and published in my last collection, Boudicca & Co (Salt, 2006), is a poem of special significance for me because it represents my first tentative attempt at writing a poem after more than three years of complete writer's block.

The poem is about my last and fifth pregnancy, hence the title. The title itself alternated early on between ‘Fifth’, the more prosaic ‘Number Five’, and ‘Indigo’, my daughter’s name. ‘Indigo’ was too personal (I feel it’s a mistake to use names in poems, or too many personal details, if only because some distance between a poem and the poet’s reality needs to be maintained for artistic reasons) and ‘Number Five’ felt too clumsy, so ‘Fifth’ it was.

The early on-screen draft which follows - I used to revise my first few drafts on screen, a practice I later abandoned for the hands-on feel of pen and paper - shows how the poem shifts and shortens before reaching its final published form. Though some stanzas were lost and others moved about, it does retain its basic form, i.e. the quatrain structure.

At one stage, beginning to lose confidence in ever finding the best close to this poem, I did experiment with longer stanzas. But, as with so many decisions made in the intense chill of editing, it did not take and I slipped, with some relief, back to quatrains.

First, here's an early draft of ‘Fifth’:

I meant to stop at two, then three,
then a fourth appeared.
Perhaps I could try hiding
under the covers, or not washing.

Three days since the blood failed,
and the test turns blue,
a miniature sea between my hands,
nine months to the far horizon.

The midwives press down hard
into my flesh: two fingers higher
than before. The cold rim
of a fetal trumpet listens for a beat.

This must be a girl again, I’m sick
as a drunk all morning
and the world tilts when I walk
like a ship sliding in a bottle.

Twelve weeks and my waist begins
to thicken. I still can’t hold
anything down, and the boys
are too heavy to carry upstairs.

Five months on, it feels
like a fish tickling, this tiny hand
or foot, dredged up
against my diaphragm.

At full term plus ten, my waters
are broken. Maybe an hour
goes past with me crouched there,
moaning and rocking.

At last her body slithers, long
and wet, from the depths,
eyes screwed up tight
and her mouth hauled open.

This draft is a reasonable narrative poem, but not what I wanted. In search of a more solid ‘out’ to the poem - and thinking a joke might provide a neat conclusion - I shunted the first stanza here down to become the final stanza.

Luckily something better occurred to me later and back it came, returning as stanza 2. Following that change, the original second stanza, ‘Three days since the blood failed’, moved up to pole position as the new opening.

That’s quite unusual for me; even when I really mess about with the guts of a poem, the first few lines rarely change, as though they have set the tone and changing them would wreck the whole poem. Here though, the edit worked.

Stanza 3 got the chop altogether. My instinct was to keep the poem’s focus on me and my unborn baby, and the presence of a midwife felt like an intrusion. Stanzas 3, 4 and 5 then moved up, with 5 undergoing extensive revisions as the end of the poem loomed and I pushed for a new, stronger conclusion. With this in mind, 7 and 8 were also jettisoned in favour of a tighter final stanza.

These revisions meant rethinking my original intentions. In this early draft, you can see how I was trying to follow the pregnancy from a postive test result right through to the labour ward. But when I removed the midwife and shifted the poem’s focus to my relationship with the unborn baby, the actual birth became irrelevant. The title and general tone implied a happy outcome anyway, so reinforcing that was unnecessary.

Unfortunately, this left me with one of the toughest dilemmas of all, i.e. how best to close the poem?

Here, I laid the poem aside for a few months. I returned to it periodically during that time, making minor changes - there’s always one more comma to be pruned - but found no conclusive solution.

Eventually it struck me that there’s something mystical about a woman’s relationship with her invisible - yet omnipresent - unborn baby, a mysticism which was not reflected by this early draft. With hindsight, I think this was for two reasons: first, the poem’s neat quatrain structure had dictated a commonsense tone, and second, my lack of confidence had prevented me from manipulating and adapting that form to my own purposes.

You have to remember that I hadn’t written a poem for over three years when ‘Fifth’ suddenly came to me, out of the blue. In such reduced circumstances any poem is miraculous. So I was reluctant to mess too much with those early drafts, however pedestrian, in case I jinxed my return to poetry.

These days I might say ‘let’s see what happens with couplets’ or ‘let’s turn the poem on its head, see whether that works.’ But at this stage I wasn’t interested in being adventurous; I was just struggling to produce something workmanlike and possibly even publishable.

To achieve that, I looked at the images and motifs of the original draft, hunting for ways to expand and develop them into a stronger ending. The most obvious motif was dictated both by the proto-title, ‘Indigo’, and the initial blue of the pregnancy test, giving me: ‘sea’, ‘blue’, ‘horizon’, ‘ship’, (sea-)‘sick’, ‘fish’, ‘waters’, ‘rocking’, ‘wet’, ‘depths’ and even ‘hauled’.

It was only a short leap from there to ‘pearl’, which then suggested ‘shell’, both of which worked in the context of a pregnancy. ‘Pearl’ was also useful for both its sacred and its parental connotations (I’m thinking here of early Christian imagery, and the poignant medieval poem ‘Pearl’). And every child knows that a shell is a mystical object; once the home of long vanished sea-creatures, you can hold a shell to your ear to hear the whisper of invisible seas.

With such resonances in place, shaping the elusive final stanzas became easier.

So here’s ‘Fifth’, as it appeared in my second collection, ‘Boudicca & Co’ (Salt, 2006):

Three days since the blood failed,
and the test turns blue,
a miniature sea between my hands,
nine months to the far horizon.

This must be a girl again, I’m sick
as a drunk all morning
and the world tilts when I walk
like a ship sliding in a bottle.

Twelve weeks and my waist begins
to thicken. I can’t hold
anything down, and the boys
are too heavy to carry upstairs.

I meant to stop at two, then three,
then a fourth appeared.
Perhaps I could try hiding
under the covers, or not washing.

This stubborn foot wedged high
under my diaphragm is
more than a fish by thirty weeks:
it’s a rich pearl pushing

against an opalescent shell, a poem,
a number, sonic reality;
refusing to be got rid of, cleaving
like a shadow, part of me.

As you can see, the order of the stanzas has been rearranged yet again and the poem is now only six quatrains long (the earliest drafts had nine). And although the quatrains had been more or less unrhymed throughout, suddenly a strong rhyme has appeared, instinctively, to close the poem by coupling ‘reality’ with ‘part of me’.

But the most interesting result of these revisions is that ‘Fifth’ now feels like two poems in one. The first is light-hearted in tone and mainly concerned with the dragging changes of a pregnant woman’s body. The second later poem feels more complex, an introspective on ‘what is hidden’ and how an unborn child can inhabit and even swamp a woman’s psyche.

At the end, I even hint at the growing impossibility of termination - tests had wrongly told us the baby would be Down’s Syndrome, making this pregnancy a particularly emotional one. So the choice of an archaic word like ‘cleave’ feels very deliberate, suggesting for me an unbreakable bond of flesh and blood, the ancient concept of kinship as something which takes precedence over all other considerations, including disability. And these two poems have been welded together by the revision process into one - more or less - organic whole.

It’s possible, then, to trace in these changes not only the path of a single poem but also the progress of a returning poet. If the early stanzas feel a little crude and closed, they are just workmanlike enough to withstand the necessary bashes and collisons of the revision process. And the closing stanzas, written after my first clumsy enthusiasm had faded, are reaching towards a more open and suggestive poetry, the sort of work the poet could only dimly - alas! - remember at that stage.

So the finished poem has a title, a definable shape, a satisfactory opening and conclusion, and has survived the dangerous throes of revision. Not brilliant, but an auspicious birth nonetheless!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Human League: Music and Poetry

Yesterday, on a whim and in a rush of fond nostalgia, I bought another copy of a lost CD of The Human League's Greatest Hits. Listening to the tracks this afternoon, such as 'Being Boiled' above, from 1982, I could feel myself slipping almost instantly back into "Jane in the early 80s" mode:

Ra-ra skirts
Drainpipe jeans
Adam Ant make-up
Industrial-strength hair gel

There's a pleasure to these moments of nostalgia but a curious frustration too, as I realise how poorly such acts of reminiscence translate to reading poetry. It's true that, more often than not, I can remember where I first read a poem, and even how it impacted on me, but I don't experience the same mildly Proustian being-steeped-in-the-past sensation, as though for a few seconds I was actually there again, back in that time.

Presumably the rhythms of this music, hot-wired into my head as a teenager, perhaps by being listened to at moments of intense adolescent emotion, perform that instant miracle of nostalgia?

If so, surely the rhythms of a poem should approximate to the same effect? Yet they don't seem to, not for me anyway. Why not?

Basically, is it rhythm, or is it the compulsive repetition of particular pop songs, and their accompanying riot of emotions - god, X is never going to look twice at me! what a fool I made of myself! - that forces them in so deep?

And how can we replicate that effect with poetry - if at all?

An Island, Greek?

I've been meaning for ages to post up this super little snippet of T.S. Eliot from The Frontiers of Criticism, but buying some selected critical prose of his today has given me the final nudge.

It amuses me mainly as someone who struggles with the odd classical poem myself, but also because I keep misreading it as "I should imagine myself to be a Greek island ..."

'What matters most, let us say, in reading an ode of Sappho, is not that I should imagine myself to be an island Greek of twenty-five hundred years ago; what matters is the experience which is the same for all human beings of different centuries and languages capable of enjoying poetry, the spark which can leap across those 2,500 years.'

T.S. Eliot: The Frontiers of Criticism (1956)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Me at the Godiva Festival

This is me, believe it or not, performing at last month's Godiva Festival in Coventry. Moments before I was due to go on stage, the equipment shorted out due to heavy rain. Half the audience left during the inevitable delay - there was a band playing in the next tent, so no chance of being heard without a mic - but luckily the rest stayed put rather than get soaked!

Jacqui Rowe took this photograph once I was finally on-stage, and it's a wonderfully atmospheric shot .... i.e. you can hardly tell it's me. But it's nice and smoky too, a bit sixties. So I thought I'd share it with those of you lucky enough to possess a magnifying-glass.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Taking Risks: an extract

We've been having a few arguments on the Poets on Fire forum boards this week about various topics, but most interestingly from my point of view, the question of 'risk' in poetry.

Now one person's risk is another person's lame duck, so it was always going to be contentious as a discussion topic. But because some of us hold very strong opinions, and emotions sometimes run high on the forum boards, we've got into all sorts of verbal tangles over this key issue of risk:

-- "It's not 'existential agony' that I'm talking about, but the need to write. Doesn't always matter what, you just need to write. It's a frustration and a single-mindedness that keeps you working at a single line even when it's knocked you back several dozen times already.

For me, it's about the struggle to combine complexity with simplicity. Or rather, to find a simplicity that has reached complexity.

A bit Zen, maybe. But it's about balance, the poem as spirit level. As though there's a point where the whole poem balances perfectly, and in the beginning it feels like a theoretical point, something you can't depend on reaching, and only too often you fail to get anywhere near it, but then every now and then you hit it, a sort of perfect form, and everything in that poem comes into line.

The demands of the long poem are very different from that of the 'little box' poem. It's like suddenly being given a gigantic canvas to work on after years of painting miniatures. At first you try to work in the same way, starting neatly in the corners. But then you take a step back from the canvas and realise it won't work like that. To be seen properly, the work has to be about big gestures and big themes and pattern and structure and variation and expansiveness and experimentation.

And that's when the inherent complexity - and potential for chaos - of the long poem needs to be brought back to a condition of simplicity, using whatever method works best for you.

So that's basically what gets me out of bed in the morning, and keeps me at the keyboard well into the early hours, and that's what I'm trying to sell. Though just writing is what I'm about right now. Everything has its moment." --

From the Poem forum, Poets on Fire.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Arvon Writing Retreat

The Arvon Foundation: Lumb Bank, Summer 2007. That's me at the front on the far left, in case you weren't certain; I nearly missed this group photo because I'd fallen asleep over my manuscript! Tutors Lee Weatherly and Malorie Blackman are sitting at the front. Lee is grasping the bench with both hands, as though afraid it may fly away with her at any moment, with Malorie Blackman beside her, clearly less horrified by the lens. On the far right, for some reason looking as though she only has one leg, is Bridget Collins, author of a debut teen novel due out from Bloomsbury this autumn.

This photograph appears courtesy of Claire McNamee.

At the end of this month - I'm not quite at packing stage, but am gearing myself up mentally - I shall be going on a five day Arvon writing retreat. It's untutored, which means there'll be plenty of time for some actual work instead of the more dubious options of chatting, lazing about and generally getting sloshed that are available on most writing courses.

Though having said that, the last Arvon course I attended was probably the one where I worked - or was worked - the hardest. It was a course on Writing Teen Fiction, and the tutors were Malorie Blackman and Lee Weatherly, both of whom are very stern disciplinarians. We had a two-to-three hour group workshop in the mornings, wrote up our daily assignments during lunch breaks and early afternoon, then would meet again for a slightly shorter workshop or reading after supper. At least two out of the four afternoons each of us would meet a tutor individually to discuss work in progress. We then had to present said work on the final two evenings in a series of individual readings of about ten minutes each.

Although that may not sound desperately arduous, by the time fifteen people have got their own lunch in a galley kitchen, sorted out any photocopying or typing that needed to be done, and found a quiet spot to compose for a few hours, suddenly it's supper time and after that, the late reading or workshop. So if you want to work on your own stuff beyond those few hours in the afternoon, you have to burn some serious midnight oil. Which means rolling into bed in the early hours ... and bleary eyes the next morning if you actually make the 9am workshop!

Don't think I'm complaining though. I thoroughly enjoyed the Teen Fiction course, and took away some brilliant advice from Blackman and Weatherly, even though my year has been utterly consumed by the Warwick Laureateship and the new editorship of Horizon Review!

So I'm eagerly looking forward to my writing retreat this summer, and spending some quality time alone in a room with my manuscript. One day soon, it will be ready to send out to some lucky, lucky agent ...

Friday, August 01, 2008

Poets Jo Bell & Julie Boden at Radio Wildfire this Monday, August 4th

Back from my beach holiday in North Cornwall, and not quite ready to blog in any meaningful way, mainly down to sheer pressure of work on the poetry front, but here's something worthwhile that needs to be flagged up for poetry lovers: Radio Wildfire will be broadcasting live from central Birmingham on Monday 4th August, and you can listen online that night (and then to selected highlights on permanent loop a few weeks later).

Radio Wildfire
Monday 4th August 8.00-10.00 pm (UK time).

August … and there'll be Gusts of Awe aplenty this coming Monday night for Radio Wildfire's live transmission with live guests in the studio and some dead good stuff on cd too. Sun, sea, and buildings insurance, Batman, it must be the British summer again! Last year it was central England turned into one great Lido, this year it's another historical seaside icon defying the smoking ban in style. Dave Reeves gets the hots for Weston Pier!

While some of you lounge around the poolside, we're taking our first serious dip into poet Julie Boden's privately distributed recording of a performance in Leamington Spa titled 'Nightmare on Clarendon Street' with music from harp and piano plus saxman Dutch Lewis. You won't have heard it before as there are only a handful of copies in existence, so tune in for a first hearing.

And opening the door to another holiday state, the man who gets to be writer-in-residence in Florida Keys every year, Michael W. Thomas will be joining us to pour out some 'Rye doom and gloom' as he puts it – or was it 'wry' doom and gloom that he said? Join us to find out and drink deep of these extracts from a sequence of short short stories.

There'll also be reflections on England from Jo Bell and tracks from the Wolverhampton Band The Lines, plus the usual eclectic mix of spoken word and music, comedy, storytelling, poetry, song and aural art, taken from cd and from our own ever-expanding sessions archive.

Join us: Monday 4th August 8.00-10.00 pm UK time at Build castles in the sound at the world's holiday hotspot …

We look forward to your company,
The Crew @ Radio Wildfire.